American Women in the Late 19th Century

In the nineteenth century, ideal womanhood centered on marriage and motherhood. Nevertheless, American women began resisting these ideals, advocating for greater autonomy. In 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention in New York marked the beginning of the movement for women’s suffrage. Although the vote would not come until the 1920s, by the end of the nineteenth century women could own property and some women even pursued university education. The growing industrialization of society also led to more work opportunities for women. This vision of womanhood that allowed for participation in the public sphere became known as “the new woman.” Although some people disapproved of the growing independence of women, artist Charles Dana Gibson’s popular “Gibson girl” illustrations celebrated this active ideal for womanhood. The Awakening explores this tension between tradition and modernity that nineteenth century women faced through Edna’s growing desire for autonomy. Although Chopin’s themes dovetailed with the growing feminist ideas of the time, the strong conservative bent of society found Edna’s ambivalence toward motherhood and overt sexual desire obscene, and the book swiftly went out of print.